Theatre Review: Stick Man (Scamp Theatre)

Sally Cookson’s award-winning production of Stick Man, an adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s picture book, is the definition of what children theatre should be: for all ages with sophistication and class.

Photo by Scamp Theatre
Rating: 5/5

I do have to confess that I did not know about this theatrical production of Stick Man is directed by Sally Cookson until I saw the information through the KidsFest! programme booklet. Since my adoration of Miss Cookson’s Jane Eyre, which was run at the HKAPA in last year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival (see review), as well as my anticipation of her Peter Pan, which is now still running at the National Theatre in London until early February, I do have high expectations.

As a reviewer, I know that the higher the expectation, the higher the disappointment. Luckily this is not that case. It even exceeds my expectation because even though it has similar thoughts borrowed from Jane Eyre, Stick Man still surprises me as Miss Cookson’s bold vision on children theatre is what astounds me. She does challenges her young audience.

If anyone have read Mrs Donaldson’s 30-page picture book, one should know that it is hard to adapt it into a one-hour theatrical narrative for children. It is not totally a linear arch-plot story but a mini-plot instead.

There are times in the book that Stick Man actually speaks in his own voice to the reader instead of being mentioned by the narrator of the book. It deals with different layers of narratives as well as fragmented time frames (it is assumed that Stick Man has left his family for a year according to the different weather illustrated in the book).

Photo by Scamp Theatre

Of course, one can adapt the book the way The First Hippo on the Moon does, which is a structured arch-plot story with realistic scenes and exchanges (see review), and it is lovely. However, I really appreciate Miss Cookson’s ambition of not just settling to tell the story in the ordinary way but with contemporary theatrical features without distorting the original lyrical text by Mrs Donaldson.

The show is done in musical form, but not a musical musical. In fact, if you have seen Jane Eyre, you will understand that Miss Cookson uses songs in a Brechtian way for storytelling. Unlike Jane Eyre though, Stick Man is already a book in verses, thus the musical element is pretty sensible.

Yet, because of this, with Benji Bower’s exuberant show tunes and eccentric jazz motifs, it is a rare treat to see children theatre with such sophisticated style.

Even just the opening of the show already speaks art. The ensemble of three, involving David Shute, Jennifer Greenwood, and Robert Jackson, comes out by marching in unison under the accompany of music, and in casual clothes.

Then for the next five minutes, not a single word is spoken. No introductions, no interactions, just a piece of physical theatre introducing the character of Stick Man, his wife Stick Lady Love, and their stick children.

The music is still intact. The three actors skilfully bring out the characters in doll-form one after another. They play with the dolls as if they are children.

Photo by Scamp Theatre

Then they start to sing on beat with the music, ‘Stick Man lives in the family tree / With his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three’, the exact words written by Mrs Donaldson in the book. The whole sequence is seamless, flawless.

What I witnesses is just a great piece of theatre done professionally to a point that even an adult can be moved by it. To open a children show with this level of artistry is breathtaking.

Not to mention that, with the use of puppetry, the use of simple props to indicate different characters and settings, the use of physical movements, and altogether with Mr Bower’s music, Stick Man gives an experience of fantasy that is not restricted to young audience.

It also creates a double meaning of the theatre space. The set, designed by Katie Sykes, with four pale and thin grey ‘sticks’ reaching up to the sky as the backdrop, a wooden stage in the middle, shaping like a cut-off tree trunk (which indicates the family tree, but also a platform for the actors to enter as a new character), and a band area where Mr Jackson performs live music and percussion occasionally, somehow indicates that the theatre space is a playground, and the theatre languages within the space has the ambiguity of whether they are representational or literal.

I keep asking myself, ‘Are the actors representing the characters in the story Stick Man, or they are role-playing the characters in real-time in front of us?’ But no matter what, this theatre language works so well.

Photo by Scamp Theatre

Seeing Mr Shute ‘playing’ Stick Man with every bit of animated emotion the character is going through, while the doll of Stick Man is being thrown around on stage, just makes me getting into the internal world of Stick Man more and more. One cannot help but laughing at him, yet also cannot help but worrying about him as well.

The interactive parts with the audience are calculated with precision. It still has those standard interactions like throwing the beach ball during the beach scene, as well as the Peter Pan pantomime moment of waking Stick Man up when he is lying at the fireplace.

What makes me thrill though is to see Mr Shute stops the show in the middle, stating that Mr Jackson and Miss Greenwood are abusing him. This part actually parallels to the part in the book where Stick Man complains that he is being abused by humans and animals since he is not a stick. On stage, we see Mr Shute also complains about him being abused as a stick, when the fact is, he is not a stick. With this bit, Mr Shute is having a fun time with the children in the auditorium.

For me, however, it is amazing to see the idea of changing the nature of this part in the book into the language of interactive theatre, which absolutely fits to that moment. It also questions not just the topic of the abuse of nature, but also the abuse of peers. Somehow, it puts the question of bullying right in front of the children’s faces, who probably are facing the same problem.

This eventually makes a stronger bond between the actor and the audience, and I can see that. At the end, when Stick Man is picked up by the girl who wants to light him up for her fireplace, the children reacts to it. Even I react to it, because everyone in the theatre can relate to it. Personally, children theatre is fundamentally about pathos, and Stick Man just nails it. No matter how old or young you are, you will be touched.

Photo by Scamp Theatre

And what is more important for such a great show than the quality of performances? Mr Shute, Miss Greenwood, and Mr Jackson form a trio of acting-perfection which is spectacular. Mr Shute is a triumph with charming presence. His Stick Man is lovable and honest.

Miss Greenwood is equally strong as the other characters who abuses Stick Man, but her Stick Lady Love stands out. Mr Jackson is a musical genius and a brilliant comedian. His saxophone solos, even though they are supposed to be annoying in the show, still stay in my head and heart, and his performance as Father also proves that he is the king of comedy.

But most of all, it is the chemistry and bonding between these three actors that makes me submit. They are convincing as long term friends, and this element really pushes the overall show to a testimony of friendship, both inside and outside the story of Stick Man. It really looks like three honest friends playing together and having a good time. It is heart-warming, delicate with style and class. This, my friend, is truly world-class.

Production Information:

Stick Man at Drama Theatre, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts
An ABA Productions/KidsFest! Hong Kong 2017 Presentation
Through 22nd January 2017

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